When the Escuelas Unidas dancers learn a routine from a region of Mexico, they go all in from head to toe, both in movement and in dress.
Throughout this school year, the young dancers have learned traditional dances from four regions, and all their hard work culminates in the "Festival Juvenil Primaveral" (or youth spring festival) that the folklorico group will put on Saturday at East Bakersfield High School. During each of their performances, the dancers will be dressed in specially made costumes representing each region.
"It gives (people) an opportunity to see the richness of folk dances and costumes, learn about regions of Mexico and support the youth," said Sylvia Guzman, director of the dance group.
Escuelas Unidas started with a group of children from different area schools, hence the name that translates to "United Schools." Now, the group is made up of dancers ranging in age from 5 to 60. Though younger dancers make up the bulk of the group, some older dancers who grew up dancing with the group have continued dancing and even have kids of their own dancing too. The oldest dancer is Guzman herself, a teacher who started the group with its first dancers in 1986.
The group of about 30 dancers is split into two age groups: children ages 5 to 12 in one and teenagers and the few adults in the second. Each group learns two new regions throughout the year.
The older group will take on the region of Pinotepa Nacional (in the state of Oaxaca, the most diverse in the country) and the state of Campeche (which has a strong Spanish influence); the first region is known for a dance where the women wear pumps, Guzman said, and the latter is challenging because it involves balancing bottles on one's head.
The younger children will perform dances from the northern region of the state of Tamaulipas (which is influenced by the Polish, Czechoslovakian and Scottish people who migrated there) and from the Mexicapan area of Zacatecas (a city known for its mining); the first dance has a cowboy influence, Guzman said, while the second is a series of shorter dances.
This year, the dancers will also return to a region they learned two years ago: one from Nayarit Costa, a coastal region along the central Pacific to the Baja California Peninsula. Because of its port, cultural influences from all over the world made their way to this region. The group added this fifth dance when a guest group could no longer perform this year, but even after a couple of years, the dancers still know the routine.
"Every year, as long as they keep dancing, they are learning something new," Guzman said of the performers.
The dancers learned the regional routines from teachers, who each come out for the initial lesson that the dancers then rehearse on their own.
"The teachers talk about why the dances are a certain way and the cultural background," Guzman said. As dance is often misrepresented as a more feminine interest, Guzman said it was nice that "the majority of teachers are men, so it gives the boys good role models."
The regional dances wouldn't quite be accurate without the perfect costume, so Escuelas Unidas has garments made for each dance, true to its specific region. Guzman said the group's "excellent seamstress" works hard to get the costumes done in time for the show. Regional accuracy extends to the hair too, which might be adorned with braids or flowers or done in a certain style depending on the region.
"For me, it's important for them to feel confident, to learn about their culture and have fun," Guzman said of what she hopes the kids get out of the experience.
Joining Escuelas Unidas will be three guest groups: Grupo Esplendor from West Covina, Ballet Folklorico Mi Tierra de Bakersfield and Grupo Folklorico St. Augustine Church from Lamont. In total, there will be around 90 participants in the recital.
There will also be vendors selling snacks and folklorico products.
Guzman said the recital usually gets around 300 to 400 people, mostly family and friends of the dancers. The parents, she said, are proud of their children and that they are learning about their culture. The kids are proud of themselves, too.
"It makes them feel good about who they are," Guzman said. "It's a beautiful night."